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A war novel is a novel in which the primary action takes place in a field of armed combat, or in a domestic setting (or home front) where the characters are preoccupied with the preparations for, or recovery from, war. It is sometimes referred to as military fiction.

Contents

History of the war novel

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Origins

The war novel's main roots lie in the epic poetry of the classical and medieval periods, especially Homer's The Iliad, Virgil's The Aeneid, the Old English saga Beowulf, and different versions of the legends of King Arthur. All of these epics were concerned with preserving the history or mythology of conflicts between different societies, while providing an accessible narrative that could reinforce the collective memory of a people. Other important influences on the war novel included the tragedies of such dramatists as Euripides, Seneca the Younger, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Henry V provided a model for how the history, tactics, and ethics of war could be combined in an essentially fictional framework. Romances and satires in Early Modern Europe--Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote, to name two of many—also contained elements of military heroism and folly that influenced the later development of war novels. In terms of imagery and symbolism, many modern war novels (especially those espousing an anti-war viewpoint) take their cue from Dante's depiction of Hell in The Inferno, John Milton's account of the war in Heaven in Paradise Lost, and the Apocalypse as depicted in the Book of Revelation.

As the prose fiction novel rose to prominence in the seventeenth century, the war novel began to develop its modern form, although most novels featuring war were picaresque satires in which the soldier was rakish rather than realistic figure. An example of one such work is Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus, a semi-autobiographical account of the Thirty Years' War.

19th century war novels

The war novel came of age during the nineteenth century. Works such as Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma, featuring the Battle of Waterloo, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, about the Napoleonic Wars in Russia, and Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, about the American Civil War established the conventions of the modern war novel as it has come down to us today. All of these works feature realistic depictions of major battles, visceral scenes of wartime horrors and atrocities, and significant insights into the nature of heroism, cowardice, and morality in wartime.

An important sub-genre of war fiction included works about war between European settlers and Aboriginal Peoples in North America, seen for instance in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Major John Richardson. In the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the war novel also entered the realm of popular fiction through the adventurous war novels of Ralph Connor, G. A. Henty, and Rudyard Kipling. These latter novelists emphasized the heroic and patriotic aspects of war. They were the last war novelists to write with a blatantly imperialist or romantic mindset, an outlook that became ever-harder to espouse in the wake of the post-industrial wars and genocides of the twentieth century.

World War I and after

World War I produced an unprecedented number of war novels, by writers from countries on all sides of the conflict. One of the first and most influential of these was the 1916 novel Le Feu (or Under Fire) by the French novelist and soldier Henri Barbusse. Barbusse's novel, with its open criticism of nationalist dogma and military incompetence, initiated the anti-war movement in literature that flourished after the war.

The post-1918 period produced a vast range of war novels, including such "home front" novels as Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier, about a shell shocked soldier's difficult re-integration into British society; Romain Rolland's Clérambault, about a grieving father's enraged protest against French militarism; and John Dos Passos's Three Soldiers, one of a relatively small number of American novels about the First World War.

Also in the post-World War I period, the theme of war began to inhabit an increasing number of modernist novels, many of which were not "war novels" in the conventional sense, but which featured characters whose psychological trauma and alienation from society stemmed directly from wartime experiences. One example this type of novel is Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, in which a key subplot concerns the tortuous descent of a young veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, toward insanity and suicide.

The late 1920s saw the rise of the so-called "war book boom," during which many men who had fought during the war were finally ready to write openly and critically about their war experiences. In 1924, Laurence Stallings wrote, one of the first autobiographical war novels, Plumes. In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) was a massive, worldwide bestseller, not least for its brutally realistic account of the horrors of trench warfare from the perspective of a German infantryman. Less well known but equally shocking in its account of the horrors of trench warfare is Stratis Myrivilis' Greek novel Life in the Tomb, which was first published in serialised form in the weekly newspaper Kambana (April 1923 - January 1924), and then in revised and much expanded form in 1930. Also successful were Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, William March's Company K, Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero, Arnold Zweig's Der Streit un den Sergeanten Grischa (The Case of Sergeant Grischa), and Charles Yale Harrison's Generals Die in Bed -- the latter one of the most bitter accounts of war ever written.

Novels about World War I continued to trickle into print throughout the 1930s. One particular development during this decade was the rise in popularity of historical novels about earlier wars. Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, which recalls the American Civil War, is an example of works of this type. The turn of the 20th and 21st centuries saw yet another resurgence of interest in novels of the First World War. Pat Barker's trilogy: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and Ghost Road certainly illustrated the ongoing fascination with the "War to end Wars" as did more recent works such as Three to a Loaf by Canada's Michael Goodspeed.

World War II and after

World War II gave rise to a new boom in contemporary war novels. Unlike World War I novels, a European-dominated genre, World War II novels were produced in the greatest numbers by American writers, who made war in the air, on the sea, and in key theatres such as the Pacific Ocean and Asia integral to the war novel. Among the most successful American war novels were Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny, James Jones's From Here to Eternity, and Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, the latter a novel set in the Spanish Civil War. An exception to American writers was Pierre Boulle's Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï (1952), translated as The Bridge over the River Kwai. He served as a secret agent under the name Peter John Rule and helped the resistance movement in China, Burma and French Indochina. More experimental and unconventional works in the post-war period included Joseph Heller's satirical Catch-22 and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, an early example of postmodernism. Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions, William Woodruff's Vessel of Sadness and James Jones' The Thin Red Line, all explore the personal nature of war within the context of intense combat.

The decades following World War II period also saw the rise in significant parallel genres to the war novel. One is the Holocaust novel, of which A.M. Klein's The Second Scroll, Primo Levi's If This is a Man and If Not Now, When?, and William Styron's Sophie's Choice are key examples. Another is the novel of internment or persecution (other than in the Holocaust), in which characters find themselves imprisoned or deprived of their civil rights as a direct result of war. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (about imprisonment in a Russian labor camp), and Joy Kogawa's Obasan (about Canada's deportation and internment of its citizens of Japanese descent during World War II) are two examples of novels that address war from alternative perspectives.

Almost immediately following World War II was the Korean War (1950-1953). Richard Hooker's novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors was a black comedy set in Korea during the war; it was later made into a movie and a successful television series. Also about the Korean war is Canadian Herbert Fairlie Wood's The Private War of Jacket Coates. It is also a comedic take on the war.

Vietnam and after

After World War II, the war that has attracted the greatest number of novelists is the Vietnam War. Graham Greene's The Quiet American was the first novel to explore the origins of the Vietnam war in the French colonial atmosphere of the 1950s. Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is a cycle of Vietnam vignettes that reads like a novel. The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh is a poignant account of the war from the Vietnamese perspective.

In the wake of postmodernism and the absence of wars equalling the magnitude of the two world wars, the majority of war novelists have concentrated on how memory and the ambiguities of time affect the meaning and experience of war. In her Regeneration Trilogy, British novelist Pat Barker reimagines World War I from a contemporary perspective. Ian McEwan's novels Black Dogs and Atonement take a similarly retrospective approach to World War II, including such events as the British retreat from Dunkirk in 1940 and the Nazi invasion of France. The work of W. G. Sebald, most notably Austerlitz, is a postmodern inquiry into German's struggle to come to terms with its troubled past.

Some contemporary emphasize action and intrigue above thematic depth. Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October is a technically detailed account of submarine espionage during the Cold War, and many of John le Carré's spy novels are basically war novels for an age in which bureaucracy often replaces open combat. Another adaptation is the apocalyptic Christian novel, which focuses on the final showdown between universal forces of good and evil. Tim LaHaye is the novelist most readily associated with this genre. Many fantasy novels, too, use the traditional war novel as a departure point for depictions of fictional wars in imaginary realms.

The post-9/11 literary world has produced few war novels that address current events in the War on Terrorism. One example is Chris Cleave's Incendiary (2005), which made headlines after its publication, for appearing to anticipate the 7 July 2005 London bombings.

Further reading

Other significant war novelists

Critical studies of the war novel

  • Philip D. Beidler, American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam (U Georgia Press)
  • Bernard Bergonzi, Heroes’ Twilight: A Study of the Literature of the Great War (Macmillan).
  • Peter Buitenhuis, The Great War of Words: British, American and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914-1933 (UBC Press).
  • Casadei, Alberto, Romanzi di Finisterre: Narrazione della guerra e problemi del realismo, Roma, Carocci, 2000.
  • Evelyn Cobley, Representing War: Form and Ideology in First World War Narratives (U of Toronto Press).
  • Stanley Cooperman. World War I and the American Novel (Johns Hopkins UP).
  • Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford UP), Wartime (Oxford UP).
  • David Craig and Michael Egan. Extreme Situations: Literature and Crisis from the Great War to the Atom Bomb (Macmillan).
  • Saul S. Friedman, ed. Holocaust Literature: A Collection of Critical, Historical, and Literary Writings (Greenwood Press)
  • Harvey, A.D., A Muse of Fire: Literature, Art and War, London, Hambledon Press, 1998.
  • Horowitz, Sara R, Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction (SUNY UP). ISBN 0-7914-3130-4
  • Mario Isnenghi, Il mito della grande guerra (Bologna, Il Mulino).
  • Madison and Schaefer, eds. Encyclopedia of American War Literature (Greenwood Press). ISBN 0-313-30648-6
  • Dagmar Novak, Dubious Glory: The Canadian Novel and the Two World Wars (Peter Lang).
  • Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (WW Norton).

See also


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